“What’s So Amazing About Grace?” by Philip Yancey

I only just got around to reading Philip Yancey’s 1997, award winning book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? When a friend gave me this book several years ago I mistook it for another book I thought I had already read it. But a few weeks ago I picked it up, got whacked in the guts by the story at the start of chapter 1, and realized I hadn’t. Better late than never.

What’s So Amazing About Grace? must be one of the most popular books on grace. There are hundreds of reviews of this book on Amazon, and I have little desire to add to this mountain of generally positive, and richly deserved, feedback. But for the benefit of those of you who haven’t read Yancey’s book, here’s my brief summary:

What’s So Amazing about Grace? is a collection of stories about supernatural grace versus worldly ungrace. Stories are drawn from history (the Clapham Sect, Hitler) to events that were current at the time of writing (Bill Clinton and the Balkan crisis), and from classic fiction (Babette’s Feast, Les Miserables) to everyday family dramas. We learn about the founding of the modern hospice movement, Alcoholics Anonymous, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, and Prison Fellowship. We get sound-bites from a diverse ensemble of characters ranging from the gracious (Solzhenitsyn, Mother Teresa) to the godless (Bertrand Russell, John Dillinger). It is such a colorful book that if they turned it into a series on the Discovery Channel it would be a winner! As you would expect in a book coming from an American evangelical writer there is a heavy emphasis on politics. But my favorite part is found in the final chapter, when Yancey writes about serving communion to the imperfect people in his church. This part inspired me to ask the question, who can take communion? So all in all, it’s a good book that succeeds in its goal of conveying grace. Read it and be blessed.

That said, I have three concerns with Yancey’s theology. I list these here not to criticize his work but to build upon it in the hope that we might advance towards our shared goal of seeing the church become a place where grace is found “on tap.” I wholeheartedly agree with Yancey when he says that a Christian’s main contribution to society is dispensing God’s grace. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that.

1. Forgiveness doesn’t start with us

Yancey argues forcefully that the human race needs forgiveness if we are to break the chains of ungrace. But he over-steps when he says, “In some mysterious way, divine forgiveness depends on us” (p.88). The context of this comment is the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew 6:15 Jesus said if we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us. Yancey wishes these words weren’t in the Bible for they seem to turn grace into law. He frets that if we think others are unworthy of forgiveness, we make ourselves unworthy of it too.

Yancey need not fret. These words of Jesus were spoken to people living under the law and not to us. To the law-conscious Jews, Jesus made forgiveness conditional in order to silence the self-righteous and reveal our need for a Savior (Gal 3:24). Thankfully the cross changed everything. We are not under law but grace (Rms 6:14) and forgiveness really does start with God (Col 2:13). As Yancey says elsewhere, forgiveness is a gift. You cannot earn it or qualify for it. You can only receive it.

2. We’re not sinful saints

Yancey is clearly impressed with the grace-dispensing practices of Alcoholics Anonymous. He seems to think that the church will be better off if we adopt AA’s principles of radical honesty and utter dependence on God. I agree. But radical honesty for Yancey means standing up, like an AA member, and declaring that one is still a sinner – even if one has been born again. I would say this radical dishonesty for it denies the transforming power of God’s grace.

For someone who is concerned with the original meaning of words like grace and charity, it is puzzling that Yancey uses the word saint pejoratively, usually to describe someone who is self-righteous and religious. Yancey clarifies that “true saints never lose sight of their sinfulness” (p.273). I guess there is a logic to this. If you know you are sinful and impure, you will be receptive to God’s grace. But give God a little credit! His grace turns sinners into saints. As the song says, I once was lost, but now I am found. It would be foolish of me to pretend I’m still lost or that I’m blind now that I can see. When you come to Jesus you get a new nature and it’s His nature. Would you call Jesus a sinner? I’m not denying the reality of our imperfections; I’m declaring faith in a higher reality which is Christ in me the hope of glory (Col 1:27). Yancey says that spiritual maturity is being aware of your own impurities (p.88). But the Bible challenges us to grow in the grace and knowledge of Him (2 Pe 3:18). Real maturity comes from knowing Jesus and appreciating what He has accomplished on your behalf (Eph 4:18).

Telling saints to pretend that they’re still sinners is the wrong way to release grace. It’ll get you asking for something you already have. The Bible says that he who is in Christ is a new creation (2 Co 5:17). Do you know what’s new about you? It’s true that we remain works-in-progress, but there will be no progress unless we learn to see ourselves as God sees us.

3. Trying harder is not the secret to Christian living

As I said I am completely in agreement with Yancey’s desire to see the church become a place where grace is dispensed. He is right on the money when it comes to the what. But he misses the mark when it comes to the how. How are we to forgive when forgiveness is so often hard to do? You must just try, says Yancey, for even though forgiveness is hard, the alternative is harder still. In other words, it’s up to us.

As an exemplar of this self-centered approach, Yancey describes Martin Luther King’s constant struggle to meet physical force with grace: “King had to fast for several days to achieve the spiritual discipline necessary for him to forgive his enemies” (p.132). What an achievement! But what does this have to do with grace? Nothing. This is walking after the flesh. It’s willpower not Spirit-power. I think Martin Luther King had an amazing revelation of grace but I have little faith in “soul force” or any other fleshly manifestation. The kind of grace that changes men comes from above, not within.

The choice is simple: You can try or you can trust. Perhaps you’ve achieved some successes in your own strength, but how will this help you when life hands you an impossible challenge? How will you forgive the unforgiveable? How do you love your enemies and those who spitefully use you? Yancey readily acknowledges that we all have limits and that we will likely fail. We should not pretend to be perfect – that’s hypocrisy. Far better to repent and resolve to do better next time. But this leads to yo-yo Christianity. You’ll be up one day but down the next. There’s a reason it doesn’t work: it’s a flesh trip and God won’t bless it.

The Christian life is not just hard, it’s impossible. No one can live the Christian life except Christ. The key to succeeding is not to try harder, but to see your self as crucified with Christ. Sometimes the best thing you can say is, “Lord I can’t do it!” Wonderful! Now stand aside and watch Him do it through you. Some of the people Yancey writes about illustrate this truth. He quotes a Polish Christian who could not forgive the Germans for their WWII atrocities: “Humanly speaking, I cannot do it, but God will give us his strength!” (p.123). That’s where grace is found – in saying, “Lord, I cannot, but You can!”

What is the secret to living the Christian life? Paul tells us:

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20)

Grace truly is amazing and Yancey does a good job of telling stories about it. But grace is even more amazing than Yancey describes, for Grace forgives us even before we have forgiven others, He makes us new, and He empowers us to reign in life supernaturally.
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11 Comments on “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” by Philip Yancey

  1. Paul, I love your posts and get so much out of them. I have a question – do you ever fast? I sometimes struggle with wanting to fast but am not sure if I’m doing it as a fleshly works because I want to hear the Lord more clearly. I know He’ll speak to me regardless of fasting and I don’t want to be trying to “earn” his voice. I just seem to be a bit more acutely aware of Him when I’m fasting. Sorry to go off subject. I thought your review was gracious:)

  2. I totally agree with what you are saying. I read this book years ago, but have the same misgivings. It seems that grace can be taken to the extreme… either to say we are hopeless and just accept God’s favour on us poor miserable little worms, or to say that grace empowers us so get off your but and do something amazing. God’s favour on us is so so much more than either of these… Yes we are gloriously forgiven, but we are also transformed, we are empowered, but it has nothing to do with us… as you say Christ in us, the hope of glory!! We are one with Him… now that is amazing!

  3. What is the stumbling block that keeps us focused on ourselves? That we somehow we have to do “our part”. It seems that Gal 2:20 is reinterpreted by the church as “Christ AND I now live in me”. That makes for a pretty crowded house and someone’s going to have to leave 🙂

  4. Paul, thanks for the writing! I enjoyed it very much!!

  5. Lisa McKellar // May 24, 2011 at 8:37 pm // Reply

    This is such a good review of an important book. When I read Philip Yancey’s book, it was as if a whole bubble of question marks exploded above my head, and I became confused. Then I realized that the author is trying too hard to convince people of grace instead of helping them to rely on the finished work of Jesus. Basically, it was a pep talk: “We can DO this” and for me it was just not good enough. Thank you for being so gracious toward this author and I thank you as well for putting the message he puts forth in his book into proper perspective. I have a real concern, however, that the over-riding message in this book will lead sincere people away from the pure gospel into a ‘no man’s land’. I found myself wandering around in that landscape for many years, and am just finding the way out, and it is because of finding the beautiful truth of the true gospel, apart from any of my works.

  6. keith blond // May 24, 2011 at 8:57 pm // Reply

    I am continually amazed how poeple either mix the Law with Grace or somehow mis interpret scripture and it this is prevalent with folk who have a Doctorate in Theology..huh! Paul, Mt 6:15 a scripture that is tossed back at us constantly by those whose eyes are veiled to the true Gospel- “we forgive, because we are forgiven” & Yancy and many others, dont read the verse in context as you have explained.[thank you for this] People tend to forget that the LAW was designed to show us our absolute need for a savior – we cannot and never will make it without Jesus, but somehow well meaning theologians [not all] and many Christians cant grasp Grace and what Jesus achieved at Calvary. May God continue to use you Paul as I find your articles amazing and clear. Perhaps you could create a “post” that deals with scriptures thrown at us, such as Mt 6:15, with the true meaning of the scripture, to enlighten those who question? God bless.

  7. Unless and until we come to the End of ourself we will never really understand “What is so amazing about grace?”

    Sunday after Sunday I have been told over the pulpit by preacher from all over the world what I must do as a good Christian; but Jesus told the young rich ruler that no one is good except God. When will Christians going to realize that it is not about us; but it is all about Jesus and His finished work!

    You guys made my day with your comments!

  8. I sent Philip Yancey a preview copy of the above review about two weeks ago. I told him I liked his book but there were three areas of his theology where I felt he missed the mark. I understood that he wrote his book 15 years ago. I wondered if his views have changed since then. (I know mine have!) In view of that possibility, and as a courtesy to the writer, I wanted to give him to opportunity to respond to my review. I promised him that I would publish unedited whatever he wrote. He just wrote this:

    Dear Paul Ellis,
    If only all reviewers showed such courtesy! I thank you for sending me this review in advance, which came to me as I was doing a book tour in the U.K. I could present arguments, especially to your last two points, but see no need to. I’ll let my book and your review both speak for themselves. You showed a most generous tone, and I thank you for that.
    Philip Yancey

  9. I found a copy in the ICC library, read it. On nearly the last page, a great observation by CS Lewis (from Mere Christianity) concerning ‘hate the sin, love the sinner:’

    It occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life–namely myself. However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.

    Eph 5:29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for it

    from The Choir: ‘Will you extend me grace?’

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